UK COVID-19 Update: Northern Ireland's 'Circuit Breaker' Lockdown

Tim Locke

October 14, 2020

These are the UK coronavirus stories you need to know about today.

Northern Ireland's 'Circuit Breaker' Lockdown

Northern Ireland has followed Scotland in taking SAGE advice on a 'circuit breaker' lockdown.

"Numbers have continued to rise. The doubling rate is of grave concern and hospitalisations are on the increase. This is deeply troubling and more steps are now urgently needed," First Minister Arlene Foster told the Stormont assembly.

The 4 weeks of additional restrictions from Friday include school closures for 2 weeks, extending the half-term break.

Hospitality businesses will be limited to takeaway and delivery services.

Rising COVID-19 cases in Belfast's hospitals have led to elective surgery being cancelled.

Medical Director, Mr Chris Hagan, said in a statement: "This decision was extremely difficult and one that we did not want to have to make. We have, however, seen a significant rise in admissions related to COVID-19 in recent days and feel it is now necessary to move to this stage in our surge plan to ensure we can continue to deliver safe levels of care."

Wales' First Minister Mark Drakeford told Sky News a circuit breaker could be the "most effective way of turning back the tide of coronavirus". Wales is also banning travel from hotspots elsewhere in the UK from Friday.

In the Commons, Boris Johnson said that for England: "I rule out nothing, of course, in combatting the virus, but we are going to do it with the local, regional approach."

In today's daily data another 19,724 UK positive tests were reported and 137 deaths.

There are 4650 COVID-19 patients in hospital and 516 ventilator beds are in use.

Circuit Breaker Preprint

Meanwhile, a University of Warwick led team of researchers has modelled the impact of circuit breaks in a preprint.

The authors comment: "Using two different modelling approaches we show that a short, sharp 2-week break leads to a decline in cases, with similar declines in hospitalisation and mortality over a short period -  this could potentially reduce the acute load on the NHS enabling it to continue non-COVID care into the winter months." 

They continue: "A precautionary break is not a lasting control measure, but effectively buys more time to put other controls in place; it takes us 'back to a time when cases were lower'.

The reduction in cases also allows measures which are resource limited (such as test-trace-and-isolate) to potentially have a greater impact."

They say, however, that key questions remain, including:

  • Are circuit breakers less harmful to the economy and society?

  • Will the restrictions receive public support and compliance?

  • What happens after the circuit breaker to avoid rising cases?

Genomic Analysis

Vaughan Gething, Wales' Minister for Health issued a statement on genomic analysis of test samples that are "both fascinating and terrible".

He said the current structure  is different to that circulating in March/April and "What is clear from the data is that the easing of lockdown rules into August has corresponded with an increase in cases, which may partly be driven by imports from other parts of the UK and wider world."

Excess Death Rates

An international study found England and Wales had among the highest rate of deaths from all causes, including COVID-19, as a result of the first wave of the pandemic.

Imperial College London researchers checked 21 industrial countries' data from February and May and published an analysis in Nature Medicine.

England, Wales, and Spain experienced the largest effect at around 100 excess deaths per 100,000 people, equivalent to a 37% relative increase in England and Wales.

Lead author, Dr Vasilis Kontis, commented: "The pandemic has affected people’s lives and health in so many ways. For instance, some people may have had an operation or treatment delayed, or might have lost the support they need with their day to day medical needs. Taking these factors into account, looking at deaths from COVID-19 infection alone is too limited; looking at deaths from all causes allows us to better understand how well countries handled the pandemic, and how well they have supported their people during lockdown measures."

Hearing Loss

BMJ Case Reports detailed the first reported UK case of sudden permanent hearing loss linked to COVID-19.

A 45-year-old man with asthma was referred to the ear nose and throat department after suddenly experiencing hearing loss in one ear while being treated for COVID-19 infection as an inpatient.

The authors, from University College London and the Royal National Throat Nose and Ear Hospital, write: "Given the widespread presence of the virus in the population and the significant morbidity of hearing loss, it is important to investigate this further."

Testing Moonshot

The Guardian reports that part of the Government's 'testing moonshot' has been scaled back.

It said there were problems recruiting people to the trial of regular saliva tests.

In the Commons yesterday, Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Labour MP for Salford and Eccles, said: "Salford was to be one of the pilot areas testing this moonshot programme. However, my local council confirmed to me this morning that some time ago now they had asked the Department for Health to share the clinical validity data behind this new technology."

The paper quotes a Department of Health and Social care spokesperson: "The pilot is focusing on testing in high-risk environments and groups to prevent and manage outbreaks, and regular testing will continue to be offered to residents in Salford in some areas of high-density housing. The no-swab Optigene LAMP test used in the Salford pilot is ongoing and has already proven to be effective."

Meanwhile 25 used swab tests were accidentally distributed to households in a student area of Selly Oak, Birmingham.

A city council spokesperson told the BBC: "As soon as it became apparent that the wrong tests had been given out, steps were taken immediately to rectify the mistake."

International Visas

Health unions, including the BMA, have written to the Home Secretary calling for automatic and free renewal of visas for international NHS staff so they can remain in the UK for the second wave of COVID-19.

They write: "With daily cases reaching record highs we need to do as much as possible to retain the skills and experience of our talented overseas colleagues as we have an incredibly tough few months ahead. We still owe these workers a huge debt of gratitude and the very least we can do is provide them with some certainty over their immigration status for the remainder of the pandemic."

Scotland Restarts Bowel Screening

The Bowel Screening Programme in Scotland, which was paused in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, resumed on Monday, Univadis from Medscape reported.

It means bowel screening kits will be posted out again, and individuals who had received screening kits before the programme was paused are being asked to complete and return them. Bowel screening colonoscopies have also resumed for individuals whose test results warranted further investigation.

Additional safety initiatives have been implemented, including physical distancing measures for staff and patients, use of PPE by the staff, and staggered appointments.

Public Health Minister Joe FitzPatrick said: "The temporary pause of adult national screening programmes was one of a series of difficult decisions we have had to make in responding to the impact of COVID-19. The safety of patients and staff will be our priority as we continue to deliver the national screening programmes during and beyond the COVID outbreak."

See more global coronavirus updates in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.

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